John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Between Planets

I finished another Heinlein Juvenile last night: BETWEEN PLANETS. I cannot compare my current reaction to my reactions as a youth, since I cannot recall any reaction from my youth. I hardly remember reading this book.

Re-reading it, I see why. There is nothing to this book. There is no "there" there. The plot consists of a young man (name already forgotten. Bud? Steve? Don?) who leaves school on Terra due to rumors of war, finds himself chased by the Evil Secret Police searching for the McGuffin; he flies to a space station to find it held by Venus Rebels, is rerouted to Venus where he arrives penniless, works washing dishes (a Heinlein shorthand for honest labor--we see the honest dishwasher again in JOB COMEDY OF JUSTICE)until his Chinaman boss is killed by Redcoats (sorry, Terran Federal soldiers, but you know what I mean). He then escapes from a prison camp, and is said to have joined the militia, and he is ordered to bring the McGuffin to an alien scientist, who builds an experimental spacewarship which hauls Don to Mars, so he can ostensibly rejoin a family who is in danger. On the way to Mars, Don daydreams about flying with his not-really-a-girlfriend aboard a starship under construction. They reach Mars and throw special experimental force fields around the incoming Redcoat spaceships. That's it.

Now, this curt description sounds more interesting than the book actually is. Here's why. You might think "chased by the Evil Secret Police" sounds thrilling; or that serving in the Venusian Militia in rebellion against King George (sorry, Terran Federation, but you know what I mean) might be interesting.

But these things never really happen on stage.

Don does not know he is carrying the McGuffin, and he has no particular knowledge of, or interest in, his uncle (or a friend of the family, I forget which) who is "disappeared" (as we say now) while under Secret Police arrest. Since he does not know he is carrying the McGuffin, he cannot do any clever spy-guy type stuff, or even any brave Harry Potter defying authority type stuff, when facing down the Secret Police. They interview him, threaten him, and he caves, and he has nothing to tell them because he knows nothing, and they let him go.

And he is simply a man in the militia in one chapter; whereas the previous chapter, he was a boy out of work. His boot camp or first battle or any battle is simply not recounted; not a single friend or fellow soldier is given a name. In other words, this could have been a Heinlein coming of age story, which the Grand Master does quite well, except that the boy never comes of age, not on stage. He never takes responsibility for any actions; he never does anything. He is merely shunted from one situation to another. Even in the last scene, aboard the spacewarship flying to Mars, he is merely an observer.

Let me tell you what was not in this book, but could have been. A coming of age story, as we saw in STARSHIP TROOPERS. A story about a boy on his own who has to make good, as we saw in TUNNEL IN THE SKY. A story about war and rebellion, as we saw in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. A story about the launch of the colony ship, about the attempt to colonize a new planet, as we saw in FARMER IN THE SKY and several other books.

It is not a book about a boy trying to get to Mars to save his family from danger, because the danger is only introduced awkwardly in the last chapter, and in the second to the last chapter, the narrator blandly informs us that Don has forgotten about his family, and does not care much about them. Well, since the family was never on stage, and since we know not a darn thing about them, naturally the reader does not care much either.

This is a stupid mistake in a book. You cannot have the main character express disinterest in the family he is trying to be reunited with. Odysseus weeps bitter tears by the seashore during his captivity by Calypso: Don does not even look at his wallet photos of his Mom, if he has any.

The McGuffin turns out to be a text on superscientific technology, which allows the rebels to build and experimental spaceship which can project SKYLARK-style Zones of Force. However, unlike Doc EE Smith, this superscience is not only an afterthought, its whole drama takes place off-stage. Don sits around moping and yawning while the scientists race the clock to get the ship ready in time. The ship does not fight a battle: instead, when hailed by the Redcoats (you know what I mean) they slap a Zone of Force around the foe in one curt sentence while the main character watches. His military contribution to the scene is that he is holding a dead man switch with orders to blow himself up if things go south. At no point does he fire a shot at the foe, or cleave a pirate with a space-axe. The Gray Lensman, he ain't.

Worse yet, the main character is told that this Zone of Force superscience will revolutionize warfare, space travel, politics, and everything. But none of that is on stage: it will perhaps happen after the book ends. In other words, the main point of any science fiction story, the tale of how the progress of science challenges and overturns old ways of doing things, is not in this story.

Several times the main character gets into bureaucratic snafu's because he was born "between planets" in free fall, so that his citizenship and loyalty to any of the planets is in question. This could have made him thematically a voice for cosmopolitanism and peace. The writer could have used such a character as a viewpoint to see both the good and bad of the conflict between Earth and Venus, loyal to both, but critical of both. Something like that. But no.

Instead, this plot point is used only to have Don have a dozen arguments with bored bureaucrats, soldiers, secret police. His whole adventure (I use the word loosely) is about as thrilling as hearing someone complain about trying to recover lost luggage shipped to the wrong airport.

The alien "Sir Isaac Newton" a dragon of Venus is a SKYLARK-style Valentian (an armored serpent with multiple eyestalks), except not as interesting or alien. Basically, the dragons are Chinese, by which I mean, they are ceremonial and polite, and have large families and ancient traditions. The only moment of drama comes, however, not when some alien formality is breached, but when a formality typical of Texas hospitality is breached. Sir Isaac threatens to throw a guest out of his house when he lays hands on another guest.

Far from being alien in psychology, this respect for the guest-host relationship is one we see again and again in Heinlein's writing. It is typically American, but with a cultural relativist, libertarian overtone that runs through all of Heinlein's work. Heinlein can indulge in the pleasure of moral condemnation while preaching moral relativism. "When in Rome, do as the Romans" is his creed, a rule of politeness elevated to a maxim of morality. Well, the Romans can throw you out of their house if you are a bad guest, or even kill you, and it is your own damn fault for being such a greenhorn! Naturally, we cool people all know the rules which apply to all situations, both in Rome and on Venus, so we will never misunderstand foreign customs, nor will those customs ever be unreasonable or wrong.

We see this same theme in GLORY ROAD, in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, and elsewhere. It is a deceptive message: to be blunt, it is a lie. By some coincidence, in all Heinlein's writings, the strange customs of the foreign lands always include hospitality and sexual liberalism. "When in Rome, do as the Romans" is a fine maxim if the Romans are having an orgy and you are invited, or when an Eskimo politely invites you to share his wife, and the wife happens to be cute by Western standards. But, should a traveler go watch Christians being eaten by lions? Such was the Roman custom. Should a traveler applaud when homosexuals were killed by crucifixion? Such was the Roman custom. Slavery was also a Roman custom, as was an almost Oriental subjection of women.

In this case, Sir Isaac endangers the entire rebel cause on Venus in order to insist on a point of nicety as to how his houseguests should be treated. As in all examples of Heinlein moral codes, of course nothing comes of this. Had the story been about whether to break the alien custom or do one's military duty, that conflict could have been interesting. As in all Heinlein tales, though, it is only the yammerheads who are rude to aliens, and the effort of being polite to aliens has no costs and no repercussions.

Now, behind this lj cut, you will see my windbaggy complaints about this book, but, do not be deceived, dear reader. Heinlein is a better writer than me, and on his worst days he could write better than me on my best days. Despite all my complaints, this book has the curt elegance of style, the Hemmingway simplicity, that makes it easy to keep turning pages. The main character is likeable, and that is harder to pull off than it seems.

There is exactly one chaste kiss in this whole book, which leaves the main character bewildered with charmingly boyscoutlike innocence. Compare to the wretched trash being foisted off on our young adults these days, teens could do a lot worse than reading this Heinlein juvenile.
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